Conflict Trends 2000/1

Putting People First: African Priorities for The UN Millennium Assembly

Book Review

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The twenty-first century, Africa’s 53 countries stood out as the stage of unending conflict, where death and poverty became the order of the day. Visuals of malnourished Angolan children show the result of an ugly civil war; thousands of human skeletons exhumed after the Rwanda genocide, which was all due to the politics of identity; and civilians with amputated limps in Sierra Leone – all these images and many more will forever serve as a reminder that the twenty-first century was not kind to Africa.

Perhaps it was for this reason that leading African politicians and intellectuals did not hesitate to declare that the twenty-first century should be an African century. This assertion was borne out of a realisation that much of the damage and human suffering imposed upon African people was a result of human activity, and could therefore be resolved. The question is what can Africa expect from the new millennium? What should African leaders prioritise, or how should they conduct their activities to ensure that the twenty-first century, is indeed, an African century?

The book, Putting People First, goes some way to provide answers to these questions. The book consists of eight chapters and is a collection of papers delivered at a conference organised ahead of the UN Assembly. The theme of the conference was African priorities for the UN Millennium Assembly.

The chapters cover broad, but interrelated themes, beginning with John Stremlau’s Putting People First: Priorities for Africa in the New Millennium, where it is argued that the UN Assembly should afford African leaders an opportunity to bring to the fore issues that focus on a people-centred approach to security, development and human rights (p.1). The second chapter, on Global Realities and African Priorities: A View from South Africa by Greg Mills, offers an excellent discussion of the differences between the old and new world orders, or what he terms an old and new environment. The chapter highlights important facts and figures about the world in general, and Africa in particular, thus making it highly informative and very interesting to read. Ogaba Oche’s chapter on Human Security: An Agenda for the new millennium, correctly argues that conflicts in Africa have become intra-state in nature, and civilians have increasingly become victims. This is one of the reasons why people, and not the state, should be the reference point when it comes to security.

The problem surrounding African states is also dealt with in the chapter entitled Nations, States or Nation-States, by Abdoul Aziz M’Baye. Apart from attempting to outline the difference between a ‘State’ and a ‘Nation,’ the author goes even further and suggests that what Africa needs are stronger regional structures in order to allow cooperation to flourish when facing the challenges of the states. In chapter five, Shadrack Guto discusses African State, Human Rights and Refugees, and vehemently opposes the view that re-drawing African (colonial) borders could help reduce conflicts on the continent. Guto holds the view that boundaries throughout the world are not natural, but have a historical construct forged through a process of struggle and conflict, and are therefore bound to be arbitrary.

The chapter by Shyley Kondowe on Sovereignty, Intervention and Democratisation in Small African States, criticises the concept of sovereignty in as far as it serves to protect African leaders and states that have consistently failed to serve as ‘protectors’ of their subjects. In this vein, Kondowe holds the view that international intervention in such cases is necessary, and that civil society needs to be empowered in order to play a meaningful role in challenging such leadership.

The penultimate chapter by Paul Omach deals with Domestic Factionalism and Internationalisation of Conflicts in East and Central Africa. The chapter is very interesting in that it successfully indicates how a conflict in one country leads to destabilisation in another. The problem of spillover effects is not necessarily limited to east and central Africa. In fact, the entire continent faces this problem.

In his last Chapter, Bassey E. Ate explains the role of ECOMOG in the maintenance of peace and security in West Africa. The action taken by ECOMOG (led by Nigeria) in Liberia was to serve as a sign that African states were ready and willing to ensure stability in their neighbours. According to the author, one of the issues crippling the development of regional peacekeeping operations in Africa, is that they are too costly (Nigeria spent US$8 million during the Liberian operation). However, this problem does not mean that regional security initiatives should not be undertaken. What it does mean is that emphasis should be placed on collaboration and partnership in order to build capacity in this arena.

The book would have done well with an index section to allow for easy and quick referencing. That notwithstanding, most of the authors in the book attempted to match their analysis of the African problems and priorities with concrete recommendations. In addition, consistent reference was made throughout the book to the fact that any form of intervention or cooperation – be it economic or political – would not succeed if it continued to eschew the concepts of human security which puts people first.

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